(SPOILERS) There was a certain degree of confidence in the run-up to the first of Marvel/Netflix’s Defendersseries. It was a certainty to be superior to Agents of SHIELD, after all. Still, a few concerns were voiced as publicity material began to appear. Wasn’t it dark? As in, dingy and difficult to make out. And, wasn’t Matt Murdock’s costume a bit crap? Neither of these is really born out in the finished series. Indeed, the latter is actually kind of great. Instead, the problems with the first season of Daredevil are ones that few might have expected. This is a fairly pedestrian tale for much of its over-extended running time, and it very nearly sinks itself through over-indulging Matt’s interminably tiresome sidekicks.
If it weren’t for the beatings, stabbings, dismemberments, decapitations, lacerations and pervasive unpleasantness, there would be little to mark Daredevil out from any other origins story. Apart from the sheer amount of time they waste setting up the damn thing. There’s very little of the much-vaunted legal procedural side for the viewers to get their teeth into (although, significantly, one of the few standout episodes revolves around a court case), which might have set it apart from being just another man in a mask. And the investigations into the activities of one Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) are entirely lacking in surprises. With regard to said violence, it’s not as if grim and gritty is a touchstone in the Marvel universe. Added to that, Marvel TV must have been conscious that most people think WB/DC has overdone the moody as a means to distinguish itself from Marvel (or as a consequence of Nolan), rather than for any really strong inherent reason.
Daredevil has plausibility on its side, as such things go; this is a street-level – or at least rooftop – world, but the show manages to go to such an extreme that the constant pummelllings quickly cease to have any impact. We more than get the message in just one episode that Matt Murdock’s alter ego is very human superhero. One who bleeds and breaks. He still needs to be a superhero, though.
By barely making it out of most altercations, he soon ceases to be a particularly convincing defender of justice. There’s also the problem that, so persuasively has this miserable milieu been established, by the time Matt dons his “proper” superhero duds, it looks like a wrong-headed and daft move. There’s no stealth to running about in a red-horned outfit, whereas the simple black mask and combat trousers made a lot of sense. (Although, wearing a mask without eyeholes may not have been the best of ideas; before long someone with half a brain might have gone looking for people who don’t need to see very well in a fight. No one ever seems to notice, though.)
Worse, the red clobber looks rubbish, both generically padded as per most modern superhero costumes and cursed with a very silly mask (it only vaguely works due to the dark lighting, finale director – and showrunner – Steven S DeKnight presumably aware that it isn’t much cop).
Matt Murdock: I need to be the man this city needs.
Charlie Cox is great as both sides of the title character, though, even if his business persona would probably give off a more professional air if he had a shave once in a while. Cox does his valiant best with a first run that would surely have been much more effective shorn down to a more concise and punchy eight episodes. Instead, he’s forced to wade through great swamps of repetition and navel gazing.
Perhaps the blessing of Marvel on the big screen is that there isn’t enough time for such circularity (even if, conversely, there’s always sufficient space for the same explosive finale). The biggest problem with Daredevil is it lacks a sufficiently strong story to guide it through 13 episodes. There are a few twists and turns, but nothing so intrinsic or of the order of magnitude you’d find in a Joss Whedon series (where DeKnight and Drew Goddard started out). Consequently, the whole feels rudimentary, very bread and butter, when it comes to plotting.
There’s the occasional hint (the boy in the crate suggests a much mysterious side, more in keeping with Whedon’s TV series which culminated in a superhero battling evil from a law firm, Angel), but it even squanders (for the most part) the traditionally fertile ground of flashbacks. Nothing in Matt’s formative or (worst of all) college experiences is really very arresting.
The Stick ought to be much more than he is, particularly with Scott Glenn bringing the full wrinkliness to bear, but these scenes add nothing to the standard mentor-pupil staple. The only interest comes from what Stick is actually up to, and that’s left hanging (will Matt be ready when the doors open?)
Wilson Fisk: I’ll make them suffer for what they’ve done.
Vanessa: I expect nothing less.
Not all the flashbacks are rote. The series’ greatest asset is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk. I don’t know much about the comic character, but I’d hazard he’s been granted a fair bit more substance in his emotional life and motivation here than is generally the case on the page. The bullied kid who defends his mother by smashing dad’s head in with a claw hammer gets an understanding nod, and at times there’s an almost Red Dragon-esque approach to empathising with his criminal mind.
Fisk is more than just a hissable bad guy, something even Murdock acknowledges when he sees that he is in love (Ayelet Zurer as Vanessa makes a formidable and burgeoning Lady Macbeth presence, and their look of love against the backdrop of an exploding building is surely a Fight Club reference). If the inevitable “We’re just alike” exchanges are monotonous in superhero-supervillain fare by this point, we don’t doubt that Fisk is sincere, in his own warped way, about improving the city.
It’s a cliché to find the villains more interesting than the heroes, but until now with Marvel that has rarely been the case. D’Onofrio’s performance is magnificent; touching, vulnerable, fearsome, brutal, there’s even a touch of Private Pyle in there occasionally. Even when he’s riding the crest of the most obvious material (“My mother!”), he’s wholly persuasive.
He’s also surrounded by a far more engaging entourage than Murdock’s. Toby Leonard Moore is also outstanding as (over-) assured right-hand man Wesley. Moore gives one of those performances that seems to be doing not a whole lot but ends up drawing attention in every scene. Of all the characters they decided to off in the season, his will be the most missed.
Fisk’s associates are a smorgasbord of national stereotyped criminal elements; Chinese, Chechnyans, Japanese, the show’s quite inclusive in that regard. The only one of these of real note (they even give the Chechnyan brothers a “so-what?” flashback) is the little old Chinese lady (Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao). She can turn all kick-ass when riled, gruesomely employs (willingly, she claims) blinded heroin packers, and cryptically describes her homeland as “a considerable distance farther” than China. Bob Gunton is engagingly nervy as Leland Owlsley, although he’s set up as kind of weak so you know there’ll be a reveal eventually (I was unaware of his the characters villainous credentials).
Little of the intrigue between the villains is riveting, but it at least has an energy absent from the stultifying exchanges between Matt, Foggy and Karen. Deborah Ann Woll, give her her due, is great in the first episode, where she actually has something to get her teeth into. She’s strong again at the close of episode 11, when she shoots Wesley. In between and after, though, she’s left high and dry.
When Karen isn’t paired with Foggy, she’s saddled with a character who manipulates and gets Vondie Curtis-Hall’s journalist killed (thank goodness his wife is there at the funeral to absolve Karen of guilt) or is defined by continually literal-minded summaries of the current state of play, or her emotional state, or others’ emotional states, or how nothing has changed, or how nothing will be the same again, in the most banal, repetitious manner.
Matt Murdock: See this, right here, in this office, this is what’s important, knowing the people I care about are safe.
She’s readily aided and abetted by Elden Henson who is, hands down, essaying the most annoying regular character in any series I can remember. Henson at least serves to highlight that Jon Favreau wasn’t too bad in the Ben Affleck picture (it had to have something nice that could be said about it). Relatively, anyway. It isn’t the glib dialogue, since someone else might make feasibly have made something of it; it’s down to Henson. His smart-mouthed repartee worked in a Whedon series because it was accompanied by sense of fun, wit and all-important chemistry. There’s none of that here.
Foggy: Everything’s going to be alright.
Karen: How can you be sure?
Foggy: Because I have to be.
Stir and repeat. Simply, we just don’t want to spend time with this trio. Would it be possible to kill off Foggy? Or have him undergo an alarming but completely justifiable face-lift? Henson manages to slaughter his occasional decent lines (“You listened to her heartbeat without permission!”; “Wasn’t that the plot of Kung Fu?”), so he’s definitely to blame.
In contrast, Rosario Dawson is great, even if her role as Matt’s nurse is a thankless one (again, I had no foreknowledge of Claire’s comic background). She benefits from notover-exposed, so we don’t have to suffer her saying the same thing over and over again.
It should be little surprise that I found the tenth episode, in which Foggy and Matt are given a two-hander that goes round and round in circles and elicits zero sympathy for Foggy Bear, outraged that Matt lied to him all this time, chock full of whining moralising, is my least favourite of the bunch. Most episodes at least have a couple of good scenes, even this one (notably the poisoning of Vanessa at the conclusion), but only two or three enter territory that veers towards the “very good” overall.
Highlights? Episode Three (Rabbit in a Snowstorm), where Matt and Foggy defend one of enforcer John Healey (Alex Morf) makes for a good judicial guessing game, and the final scene (“You should have just killed me!”) after Daredevil extracts the necessary information is appropriately sobering.
Wilson Fisk: You and I have a lot in common.
Daredevil: We’re nothing alike.
Six (Condemned) has Daredevil protecting a Chechnyan Vladimir (Nikolai Nikolaeff) in a besieged building, and it’s a well-devised scheme of cat and mouse. Only the pre-requisite comparisons to the bad guy (“We have nothing in common!”) and the harping on his morality (he won’t kill, even if he’s very pro torture) let it down.
Eight (Shadows in the Glass) focuses on Fisk’s background, with the best flashbacks (“Get the saw!”) and a good rug-pull ending (even if it does rather defeat analysis; if there’s no record of Fisk, how is that suspect fact explained when he announces himself?)
As noted, there are smatterings of strong moments in most episodes. As far as the bruising go, the punctured lung in Two (Cut Man) is only topped by bashing a goon on the head with an expertly timed drop of a fire extinguisher, from several floors above (how said goon survived remains a mystery). Nine (Speak of the Devil) features a particularly brutal fight scene with a ninja, lessened by this point by the tediousness of Matt being constantly on the back foot in fights, and a well-delivered monologue about evil from Ben (even if appropriating the Rwandan genocide for entertainment purposes is a little tasteless).
Eleven (The Path of the Righteous) has the bit with the balloon, and the great Melvin (Matt Gerald, getting to play a nice guy for a change and knocking it out of the park). The action is sometimes better in conception than realisation. The fight that closes Two is strong on momentum, but we’ve seen so much better on the big screen. In Twelve (The Ones We Leave Behind) there’s a daylight chase that highlights how obliging rooftops are to one of Daredevil’s aerodynamic limitations.
In contrast, the finale (Daredevil) might have my favourite fight of the first season. It’s played out on Detective Hoffman’s face, eyes shut tight; when he opens them, Murdock has despatched all the cops poised to terminate the turncoat detective. It’s an effective approach, one that follows on from the Predator-type manoeuvres when he rescues Claire in Four (In the Blood).
Wilson Fisk: But I am the ill intent that set upon the traveller on a road he should not have been on.
The finale never quite comes together. Scenes like the arrests to Nessun dorma feel derivative and obvious. The prison van breakout is pretty good though, mainly down to Fisk’s retelling of The Good Samaritan. It’s much better than the run-of-the-mill duking it out between the newly clad Matt and Kingpin-to-be. It ultimately appears as if Matt wins after becoming enraged at Fisk for insulting his shitty costume.
Daredevil could do better then, a lot better. They need to come up with a plot that ducks and weaves and keeps the viewer guessing, ditch Matt’s boring Catholic guilt and cut down on his chums’ screen time (or better still, have Foggy horribly beheaded). His costume needs a serious redesign too, and give us more insight into his super-abilities. No issues with John Paesano’s score, or the title sequence; if the show lived up to those elements, it would be very good indeed.
It’s a shame DeKnight didn’t bring to the show all he learnt on Angel and the (variable) Dollhouse. Would it have been much different if Drew Goddard had stayed? I’m doubtful, as the basic structure must have been etched out. Daredevil was sufficiently mean, but should also have been lean. If you ever wondered what a Glen A Larson or Stephen J Cannell show with subdued lighting and added splatter would be like, here was your answer. Perhaps Doug Petrie (co-executive producer on this season, also a Buffyalumni, Pushing Daisies veteran, and, er, CSI), taking over as showrunner on Season Two, will make Daredevil the superhero his city needs.